DARPA Robot Finals

Robot gladiators take on disaster course

Humanoid robots battle it out in DARPA Robotics Challenge.

NASA Valkyrie robot
Sharon Gaudin

DARPA Robotics Challenge

The pitted 16 teams against each other to see who could build the smartest, most stable and capable robot that will one day work with humans for disaster response. Teams from NASA (robot shown here), Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MIT and Carnegie Mellon University, among others, had their robots perform tasks including climbing stairs, walking over debris and even driving a car.

Team Schaft, based in Japan, with a robot and software they built themselves. Others used Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot but wrote the software to operate it.

A total of eight teams have moved on to negotiate for government funding and compete in the last phase of the challenge in 2014.

Hubo robot
Sharon Gaudin

Taking on the terrain challenge

Hubo, the robot from Drexel University, took on the debris course during the challenge at the Homestead Miami Speedway in southern Florida. Hubo struggled with the course, falling twice. The team, which earned a total of 3 points during the two-day event, will not advance to the final phase of the three-part challenge.

Researchers have said one of the greatest challenges to building a humanoid robot is enabling it to balance itself. The human shape is inherently unstable, so people continually shift their weight to maintain balance. A robot needs to do the same.

The tether on top of the robot’s head doesn’t hold the robot up. It is meant to keep it from crashing, damaging the expensive machine, if it falls.

Schaft robot
Sharon Gaudin

Japan’s Schaft robot dominates the challenge

Schaft, a robot built by a Japanese team, performs the drill task, which challenged the robots to pick up a tool, walk across the floor and use the tool to cut into a wall at the appropriate target.

The Japanese robot easily won the overall two-day challenge, grabbing 27 out of a possible 32 points.

Gill Pratt, a DARPA program manager, said Team Schaft did so well at the competition because it's team members began to work on their robot earlier and more seriously than all the other teams. He noted that they did their homework and it paid off for them.

Team Schaft built both the hardware and the software for the challenge.

Atlas robot
Sharon Gaudin

MIT’s Atlas robot works on debris challenge

MIT’s robot tackles the debris challenge, removing wood in a simulated disaster response situation.

MIT, like many teams in the challenge, built the software to run Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, a 6'3", two-legged humanoid robot.

MIT is moving into next year’s finals after coming in fourth place with 16 points during the challenge.

Each of the finalists now will begin negotiations with the U.S. government to get funding for the research needed to complete the next phase of the challenge. Each team is eligible to receive up to $1 million to advance its work.

Valkyrie robot
Sharon Gaudin

NASA’s robot struggles with door challenge

Valkyrie, a robot built by NASA’s Johnson Space Center, attempts the door challenge. The robots were tasked with opening and walking through three doors. The doors became increasingly difficult to open or hold open as they progressed.

NASA’s robot struggled with the challenge, failing to get through even the first door. It was a tough overall two-day event for the Johnson Space Center’s robot, which did not earn any points. It will be ineligible for funding to continue research for the final phase of the challenge, which is scheduled for late 2014.

Sharon Gaudin

RoboSimian takes on the debris pile

RoboSimian, a four-legged robot designed and built , made it through the first two phases of a three-part debris task.

The first phase consisted of the robot's walking up and over a small incline. Next, the robot had to climb down four tiers of arranged cement blocks. The third phase had the robots trying to maneuver over a scattered pile of blocks.

RoboSimian earned 14 points during the two days of competition, coming in fifth. The robot is designed to be stable on three legs, while using the fourth to open a door or use a tool. It can also rise up to sit back on attached wheels and use its two front legs as arms.

Thor robot
Sharon Gaudin

Driving robots!

Yes, it's true. The DARPA Robotics Challenge had robots driving cars.

Here, Thor, a robot built by the team from Virginia Tech, sits behind the wheel of a Polaris Ranger XP as its team prepares for the driving course, where the robot had to maneuver around obstacles as it motored down the track.

Meanwhile, the robot’s operator was working in a garage and could not see the robot or the course. The robot scanned the course and sent back the data through a diminished fiber optic cable. DARPA wanted the communications channel to be weak to better mirror real-life communication problems that it might see during a real disaster situation.

Thor robot pit crew
Sharon Gaudin

Even robots have a pit crew at the racetrack

Members of Team Thor get their robot set up to take on the driving challenge at Homestead Miami Speedway.

The robot’s handlers positioned its hands on the steering wheel, while DARPA volunteers connected the fiber optic communications cable on the back of the car, a Polaris Ranger.

Each robot was given 30 minutes to complete each task. Thor finished the course but did not get out of the car on its own, which would have given the team an extra point.

Few teams were able to finish the course. 

Thor robot driving
Sharon Gaudin

Ready to get driving

The team from Virginia Tech built the hardware and the software for Thor, which is shown here about to take on the driving course.

Gill Pratt, a project manager for DARPA, said the judges had expected the driving task to be one of the harder challenges for the humanoid robots. And they were right.

While Team Thor did well with the driving test, they were just one place out of making the cut to continue on to the finals next year. They came in ninth, with a total of eight points, while the top eight moved on.

TracLabs robot drilling into wall
Sharon Gaudin

TracLabs robot performs drill exercise

The robot from TracLabs Inc. drills into a wall during the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Team TracLabs came in sixth place with 11 total points for the competition. 

TracLabs is a Texas-based company focused on robotics and artificial intelligence.

In the 2014 Robotics Challenge finals, teams won’t take on separate tasks but will face a single disaster situation. DARPA’s Gill Pratt said a robot might have to put out a fire and be given a car to get to the scene, along with ladders, tools, hoses and stairs to get the job done. The robot’s team will have to decide how the machine will accomplish the task.

Atlas robot scales the ladder
Sharon Gaudin

WPI’s Atlas robot scales the ladder

Warner, the Atlas robot from a team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, gets a good start up the ladder.

WPI came in seventh place with 11 points in the overall challenge.

Team leader Matt DeDonato said the biggest challenge was having a short amount of time to integrate the team's software with the Atlas hardware. "We had wild ideas when we first got [Atlas] but we needed to work in the time constraints,” he said. “The software guys have the most fun because we take the hardware and make it do something. Software is really where we're going to be cutting edge."

Warner robot pulls hose
Sharon Gaudin

A firefighting robot gets to work

WPI’s robot, Warner, pulls a hose toward a nozzle in one of the eight tasks at the challenge.

The teams were given points based on their robots' ability to handle the tasks with the least amount of human interaction and in the fastest time. The tasks are intended to test the robots’ mobility, dexterity, perception and operator control mechanisms.

The goal of the challenge is to push robotics technology to become more autonomous, enabling the machines to make decisions on how best to move around obstacles to get to where they need to be.

MARCS robot
Sharon Gaudin

Potential life-saving robot

HDT Global, an Ohio-based robotics company, did not compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge but showed off its robot, MARCS, at an expo held there.

MARCS, short for Multi-Arm Robot Control System, is based on a dual-arm system that HDT built for the U.S. Navy. Intelligent Automation Inc. created the software for the tracked robot.

The robot uses four joints in each hand and seven in each arm. It also has sensors on its head, as well as cameras on the inside of each wrist, giving it a better image of what it’s try to grasp as well as depth perception.

MARCS robot
Sharon Gaudin

Got it!

MARCS, HDT’s dual-arm robot, easily lifts debris off a mannequin during a demo at the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

The robot's arms were built for the U.S. Navy. HDT then mounted them on a body as a proof-of-concept project.

Different roboticists at the two-day event said they expect robots to be helping humans during disaster recovery efforts within 10 to 20 years. Recently, more funding has been going toward robotic research, particularly humanoid robotics, which is shortening the time it will take to have life-saving robots on the market.

Taco Pack
Sharon Gaudin

Engineer fuel

With 16 teams from multiple countries competing in a challenge to build the best robotics technology, engineers were working long hours – all just days before Christmas. To keep themselves going, a lot of teams brought in their own food. It seems doughnuts, Fritos and tacos may be the food of champion engineers.

MARCS robot giving thumbs up
Sharon Gaudin

Working toward the next challenge

With the second stage of the DARPA Robotics Challenge behind them, eight different robotics teams are looking ahead to the final competition.

DARPA’s Pratt said in the final challenge, the robots will have wireless communications, and will not be able to use a power cord; they will need to be powered entirely by an onboard battery pack. The robots also will not be tethered, so if the expensive machines fall, they will hit the ground and could be damaged. That means their physical stability needs to be improved.

Boston Dynamics, which built the Atlas robot, said next year their robot will have lighter arms, possibly another wrist joint and a battery pack that will enable it to run for an hour.

Robot Revue: DARPA Robotics Challenge

Two days of robotic competition wrapped up last weekend in Homestead, Fla. Here's a special music video featuring highlights from the DARPA Robotics Challenge 2013.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.